"Blake, can I see you in my office please?"
Blake Myers sighed in annoyance as he recognized the voice behind him as that of his manager, Andy.
"I'm very busy. Come back after the update tomorrow," he said.
Standing up with an exasperated grunt, Blake followed his boss to his office across the hall and plodded over to the empty chair by the wall. He plopped down and faced Andy while ignoring the stare coming from his left.
"Alright," Andy began with a glower. "You both know why we're here. This is an automation engineering company, not a daycare center. We're going to settle this crap now and you're both going to stop acting like immature children, or things are going to get worse for the both of you very quickly." He turned to face Blake. "To start, apologize to Jared."
"For what?" Blake indignantly snapped, crossing his arms in defiance and frowning at the young man sitting in a chair adjacent to him.
"The whole thing. You know I wasn't here yesterday to witness it myself, but I've been provided some choice quotes from a variety of sources. I would suggest you start with an apology for saying that his work on the bot supervision server could be done better by thirteen untrained monkeys and a copy of Visual Studio."
"Why? It's true."
"Screw you, man," Jared interjected, shooting him a petulant glare.
"It's buggy as hell, doesn't cover most edge cases, and will eventually leak enough memory to crash the whole system," Blake countered. "If the new functionality you were working on wasn't a crucial feature that was promised to our customers in the update tomorrow, I'd just roll back everything you've committed. But it's too late." He turned back to his manager. "Andy, you do know that whole modules need to be fixed and retested before the deployment, right? And we don't have time to roll back his commits and redo all of it before the deadline, so instead we have to just try to fix all the problems he's created?"
"Yes, Blake, I am well aware of what we're dealing with right now. That doesn't excuse your behavior. Jared's been here for a little more than a month. He's going to make mistakes."
"No, stop excusing his actions."
"Dude, I've been here five fucking weeks!" Jared exclaimed. "I'm sorry I messed up, but you can't seriously expect me to know the ins and outs of every line of code at this point! That's fucking bullshit, and you know it!"
"I agree, Blake. He's made some serious mistakes, but you have been way too hard on him over what amounts to nothing more than inexperience."
"You don't get it. Both of you." Blake messaged his temples. "I'm not an idiot. I know how complex the systems are here. I should, I wrote most of them. There’s no way you would have a good grasp of everything on your own yet. But as you just said, you knew how little you understood. You knew how ignorant you were. But what did you do about it? Nothing. Nada. Zip. All you had to do was ask and I would have gladly taken the time to help you as much you needed. The same goes with Brenda, Mike… pretty much every programmer here would have helped you. And believe me, I checked with the others before I said anything, and they all told me you didn't ask any of them.
"I can't stand for that. Everybody is ignorant about a lot of stuff. It's a complicated world out there. But when it's stuff that matters, like science, or elections, or, I don't know, your fucking job, you'd better get your shit straight or I don't care how loudly you complain to the big, scary boss man. You won't get a single ounce of respect from me. And if you let that ignorance fester in a way that makes my life, or the lives of my engineers, harder, I'm not going to hold back just so I don't hurt your precious feelings. I don't know if it was pride, or you didn't want to bother us, or what. I don't care. What matters is that we are where we are today because you decided to derp around, messing with stuff you didn't properly comprehend, simply because you couldn't say the words 'I don't understand, please help.' Now if you'll excuse me, I have lots more messes to clean up and very little time left to do it."
Without another word, Blake stood up and strode out of his manager's office, heedless of the angry squawking behind him, and went back to work.
* * *
It was well past 12AM when Blake steered his Chevy Volt out of the parking lot and began the short fifteen-minute-long trip back to his apartment, his speakers blaring Creedence Clearwater Revival at an unhealthy volume. Just a few minutes into the journey the soulful voice of John Fogerty was suddenly cut off by the sound of his ringtone. He hit the answer button without even looking at the caller – there was only one person who knew him well enough to confidently call him this late on a workday.
"Hi honey, how are you doing?"
"Andy threatened to fire me again."
"Blake, what did you do this time?"
"I just got into an argument with this new employee. He's a little shit. The only reason he got a job here is because his father's a friend of the owner. Don't worry, it's an empty threat. Nothing will happen."
"Sweetie, it does no good to keep pushing the limit with your boss like this. It's not good for your career."
"Don't worry about it, Mom. People with skill and experience on both the hardware and software side of engineering like me are rare, and they can all get better jobs at better companies than this one. If I were to suddenly disappear one day, they'd fall apart. Andy knows it, I know it, and he knows that I know it. He just feels the need to try to establish some kind of authority over me because he doesn’t know any other way to 'manage'."
He heard a concerned grumble in response, and nothing more.
"So why are you calling me after midnight, Mom? I thought you would be in bed by now."
"Well, I'm trying to print out some flyers for our upcoming neighborhood party, but the printer is acting up again. The computer says it's not there just like last time. What am I supposed to do again to fix this?"
Blake sighed as silently as he could and rolled his eyes.
"Mom, remember the program I put on your computer? The one with the desktop icon labeled 'Use this to make the printer work'? Run that and you'll be fine."
"Oh, right! Okay, hold on a second and I'll do that."
The call went mostly silent as he heard his mother begin to click around with her mouse and he sighed inwardly once more. The one problem with being the "computer guy" of the family meant that you were also the person who had to fix every last goddamned problem that appeared, and then whenever anything went wrong later it was somehow your fault. It was a curse that many tech-savvy men and women were familiar with. One day, Blake had gotten so frustrated with his parents' piece o' crap printer constantly not connecting that he had written something to handle the issue so he didn't have to anymore. It did almost everything he would normally do, even straight-up reinstalling all the drivers if nothing else was working. His mother had loved it, telling him about the times she had used it and how it had worked like a charm. Which made the fact that she forgot about it somewhat strange.
His mother was no fool, in some ways being far more intelligent than he. She wasn't the best with computers, but it wasn't like she was technologically illiterate either. She generally knew her way around an operating system and she wasn't the type to fall for phishing or install a virus accidentally. Combine that with her rather recent use of his fix program, and something struck Blake as wrong. Either she had suddenly manifested full-blown Alzheimer's in the last week, or...
A shiver went down Blake's spine as his mind connected several dots and drew a picture he most definitely didn't want to see. This was all a pretense, an excuse to justify calling him out of the blue... and that only meant one thing.
Blake's mind kicked into overdrive as he considered every possible option at his disposal. He could feel that he had just scant seconds remaining before disaster struck.
Could he say that he had just arrived at home? No, she would take that as an invitation to talk even more.
Perhaps he could fake an accident? Something small but significant enough that she would hang up? No, too unbelievable.
Blake cursed his empty stomach. He always thought better when full, but he'd been too busy to eat since lunch.
Wait! That was it! As always, fast food would save the day! Blake cross-referenced his location with his knowledge of the local fast food chains that would be open this late. He had already passed the Wendy's a few miles ago. There was a McDonald’s two miles past his house, but that was too far away to save him. The Taco Bell was closed for renovations.
His options were slim. Fortunately, there was one place that was both open and close enough to provide salvation. Unfortunately, that place was White Castle. He did not have the luxury of choice. He slammed on the accelerator, the chain's glowing sign a beacon of safety in the distance.
His time was up. He braced for impact as he hurtled down the empty street. So close, but still so far.
Nothing. Had he just imagined it all? Were his many late nights staying up playing video games instead of sleeping finally catching up to him and turning him paranoid? The entrance was just ahead. He pulled into the small lot just in case and headed towards the drive-through lane.
"So... have you met any nice girls lately?"
Boom. There it was. The topic. Again. However, unlike the last fifteen times, this time Blake had a way out. He smiled as his window rolled down and the static-y voice of a teenage male said "Hi, welcome to White Castle. Can I take your order?"
"Sorry Ma, but I gotta go, they're waiting for my order. I'll talk to you later sometime, okay? Tell Dad I said hi."
His mother sighed on the other end, her diabolical plot foiled. "Okay dear. Thanks for helping. I'll talk to you later."
Relief washed over Blake as the call ended. He has escaped his mother's clutches intact for once.
"Sir? Can I help you?"
Blake chuckled. "You already have, my friend. You already have."
* * *
A few minutes later, Blake pulled into his parking space, his left hand turning the wheel while his right dumped a sixth slider into his gaping maw. He hated to admit it, but he really enjoyed White Castle's food. He just wasn't a fan of the consequences that would show up later... but that was a problem for Future Blake to deal with. Present Blake still had sliders to eat. He grabbed the bag from the passenger's seat as he got out of the car. Another four sliders remained, enough for a meal for a normal person. Blake, however, was not normal. He loved to eat, as his growing gut and flabby rear would attest. It didn't help that he ate out far more than was healthy for anybody, but between his ample salary, late hours, and an aversion to doing dishes, it was little wonder that he was always frequenting the local restaurant scene.
The tenth and final slider disappeared into his mouth as he unlocked his apartment door and disabled the security system. Stepping over and around the mess of cords and doodads strewn across the floor, he made his way across his living room to his couch and flopped down upon it with a weary sigh. After such a trying day, he needed to unleash some of that built-up aggression. He unlocked his phone and sent a simple message to a friend.
"you down for some games"
"gimme 10," came the reply seconds later.
Blake turned on his TV, booted up his console, and grabbed a controller. Any time now, his friend would log on and the two would engage in a few hours of exhilarating head-to-head competition. He flopped down on his soft couch and leaned back, ready for some much-needed entertainment. He really needed to let loose.
Ten minutes later, however, Blake was too busy letting loose in a much more literal fashion. He mumbled curses at anything and everything he could come up with as he clenched, sweated, and groaned on his porcelain throne, his bowels delivering a harsh rebuke for his earlier decisions. While he and his mouth liked White Castle, the rest of his innards most definitely did not, and they were making that fact abundantly clear to him once again. This was the price he had known he would have to pay to get out of having "the talk" with his mother; he just hadn't expected it so soon. He could hear angry text messages popping up on his phone back in the living room and he mentally apologized to his friend for suddenly ditching him, but it looked like he wasn't going to be moving for a good while.
After nearly half an hour of pain and misery, Blake, refreshed and relieved, flushed the toilet one final time and smiled. It was over. Only blue skies and sunshine remained. That was when it all went wrong.
He could not define the particular nature of the sensation that assaulted him. At best, he likened it to a powerful suction, except that there was no physical component involved. Something constantly yanked on a part of him that he didn’t previously know existed. He didn’t have the time to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon before the world disappeared.
Time and space warped around him, breaking the natural laws of reality, establishing new ones, and then breaking those as well. Two equaled three, up was down, and circles had corners. Blackness so dark that it seemed to absorb the very concept of color surrounded him, and yet its dazzling brightness threatened to render him blind. It was practically impossible to tell, but what little of his mind that could still function normally thought that maybe, just maybe, he saw something out there in the void flash across his vision. A horrible, terrible thing that defied description.
While that small remnant of his consciousness was trying to dismiss such a notion as simply a product of his maddening environment, the rest of it was doing all that it could to cope with that fact that he felt like he was burning alive. Every cell, every atom in his body seemed to burn with the heat of a thousand suns, birthing an unimaginable pain that dwarfed even the torture that he had been experiencing just moments before. Then there was the pressure. He didn't know what it was, but it was building inside him and gaining power with each passing second. In just a few moments, he could tell that he would no longer be able to contain it and it would burst from his being with deadly consequences. He opened his mouth to scream, but found there was no air.
And then suddenly there was. Blake collapsed onto all fours and tried his best to keep his dinner inside him. Head buzzing and eyes unfocused, he gasped for oxygen and took a few deep, rattling breaths. The pressure had vanished, the pain with it. It was over.
"What the fuck was that?" he croaked weakly, his voice echoing around the room. He'd heard of bad cases of food poisoning but a bizarre nightmare acid trip was taking things well past the bounds of believability. Then he froze. An echo? In his bathroom?
Shaking his head to clear the away the haze in his mind and refocus his eyes, Blake found his hands resting on a large, dirty gray slab of... smooth stone? He closed his eyes, shook his head harder, and took another look. Nope, still not the slightly stained linoleum tile of his bathroom. More confused than afraid, his head rose and he gasped as he saw where he was.
The room was large, spacious, and rectangular, with solid stone walls with no apparent seams, as if the room had not been constructed but rather carved. Softly glowing quartz emplacements lined the ceiling, lending the space a creepy atmosphere. Wires and cables made out of some dark gray metal wound around the walls like vines. Some connected to strange devices placed at various positions around the chamber, while others wound around what looked like more quartz crystals, except these ones weren't shining. Everything seemed so alien to him that Blake forgot all about his circumstances and instead stood up and took a step towards the nearest device – and promptly fell flat on his face.
Oh, right. This whole insane experience had caught him with his pants down. Literally, in fact, given that he had been about to bend over and pull his shorts back up past his ankles when the world had taken a trip on the Crazy Express. Hiking them up now and tightening his belt, Blake approached the nearby device.
It didn't look like anything he could identify, but rather an oddly-shaped lump of metal with colored grooves winding around it in patterns that he couldn't understand. Were the grooves decoration, or did they have some impact on the function? He had no clue.
That's when Blake spotted something important that he had missed during the first inspection: an exit. He cautiously made his way across the room to the doorway to find a short hallway that terminated in stairs heading upwards. Seeing nowhere else to go, he continued down the hall and climbed the stairs. The many, many stairs, it turned out. Just as he was beginning to wonder if the stairway never ended, he reached the top, where he found a large door and a glowing pad approximately the size of a sticky note. Touching the pad, the door began to move aside. A great deal of audible grinding emanated from the door's mechanisms as if it was fighting with centuries of rust, grime, and corrosion, but the large metal slab eventually managed to work itself far enough to the side that Blake could squeeze through the gap.
His first exposure to the outside world overwhelmed him with an onslaught of unfamiliar smells and sounds. He remained completely befuddled as to where on Earth he actually was. Stepping out into the open air, he realized that even his befuddlement was entirely inaccurate. Last time he had checked, the Earth didn't have three moons.
A dream. This had to be a dream, or maybe some kind of strange drug trip. Maybe the cook at the White Castle has slipped something into his sliders. Something like that. There was no other possible explanation. He most definitely wasn't on another planet. Absolutely not. Occam's Razor said it had to be a dream. Just a really, really, realistic dream.
The night breeze whispering gently in his ears, Blake Myers sat down on the soft ground below him, curled into the fetal position, and stared at the three foreboding circles hanging over him in the star-filled alien sky, waiting patiently for this hallucination to end. He would wake up any time now. It was the only possible explanation. He was sure of it.
Aaaaaannnnyyyyyy time now.